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Up to six pieces of debris fell off Discovery: NASA

AFP | July 5 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, United States (AFP) - Up to six pieces of debris that could be foam insulation fell off Discovery's troublesome external fuel tank minutes after liftoff Tuesday, a top NASA official said.

Officials cautioned, however, that it was too soon to know whether the debris struck Discovery and that the pieces came off later than would normally endanger the shuttle.

Columbia's demise in February 2003 was caused by foam insulation that peeled off 70 seconds after liftoff and struck its heat shield.

"About two minutes and 47 seconds give or take (after the Discovery launch), we saw three perhaps four pieces come off (the fuel tank)," said shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, adding that it was unclear whether it was foam or "something else."

"We also saw another piece or two come off at about four minutes 50 seconds," he told reporters at the Kennedy Space Center.

He cautioned, however, that it was "very raw, preliminary data" and would have another report later Tuesday.

But Hale said the debris came off the fuel tank later than officials fear it could damage the shuttle's heat shield.

"Both of those (losses of debris) are interesting because they are after the time we're concerned about aerodynamic transport causing damage to the shuttle tiles," he said in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

He did not say what size the debris was.

NASA officials had expected some foam to come off during liftoff, but that it would not be of a size that would endanger the shuttle.

A small piece of foam fell off Discovery's fuel tank a day before the launch, but officials decided the shuttle could fly safely without repairing the gap.

Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth on February 1, 2003, killing the seven astronauts aboard.




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